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Living on a thin line: Kanu Behl on Agra

Director Kanu Behl discusses the challenges of making his second feature, ‘Agra’, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival this week

Kanu Behl shooting 'Agra'
Kanu Behl shooting 'Agra'

Kanu Behl’s first film as director, Titli, a searing portrait of a East Delhi family, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, and released in India in 2015. Since then, he’s been working on his second feature, Agra, co-written with Atika Chohan (Behl's inventive, vitriolic short, Binnu Ka Sapna, released in 2019). Agra is now ready, and will also premiere at Cannes, part of the Directors' Fortnight section at the festival, which starts today.

Agra is a difficult film to describe and a harrowing one to watch. It begins with a hallucination and continues like a fever dream, shoving aside the pieties of polite arthouse cinema. Guru (Mohit Agarwal) is a young man on the brink, ostensibly dating someone but intensely repressed, both sexually and emotionally. He lives in a multi-storeyed house with his mother, his father, and his father’s mistress—each one bitter and angling for power. He dreams of a room on the terrace for himself, but thwarted desires threaten to destroy the shaky edifice of his life. Lounge spoke to Kanu Behl about the long gestation of this project, the inventive sound design and the personal risks he had to take to understand his characters.

You’ve been working on ‘Agra’ for a while. Was it the kind of project that demanded time, or was getting it made particularly challenging?

There were two major difficulties. One I knew the moment I started: where will you get funding for a film like this in India? The other, more interesting roadblock is an unconscious one I woke up to in the middle of writing, to deal with the fear of making a film like this myself.

After Titli released in India in 2015, I truly got into Agra. I had the germ of the idea. I wrote a couple of drafts where I was a little scared—I was probably not writing what I really wanted to. After about a year of writing, and two or three drastically different drafts, I was at the Three Rivers residency in Italy. My mentor was Molly Stensgaard, who edits for Lars von Trier. On the fourth or fifth day, she asked me, why are you making this film? I was a little taken aback, and said I want to do a piece about repression and sexuality in India. She asked, then why are you not doing it? That really made me take a step back, ask myself what I was truly feeling and what was the impulse for not making the film.That proved to be a key breakthrough.

Around October-November 2016 is when the film really started taking shape and I started writing something closer to what the film is now. By early 2017, we had the first draft. We got Cinémas du monde (a French grant for foreign feature films) just after that, so 40% of the funding was in place. I always knew the other 60% would be the problem. I went around town but no one wanted to look at it. Two years went by like this. It was in 2019 that I finally found collaborators who were on the same page.

I shot the film in June-July 2019. Then everything shut down because of the pandemic. And we took some time with post [production], because it's a difficult film with a difficult character operating on a very thin line. I wanted to take time to edit the film.

What was the germ of the idea?

I would say it was more a very strong feeling within me that I'd carried for a few years—growing up, in my adolescent years, going to college in Delhi, and some of the early years in Kolkata. I was wondering why people don’t choose to address sexuality, why there isn’t more conversation in our cinema about that. That combined with my own feeling about sexuality and how I had been able or unable to express it in those years. A lot of what you see in the film is real-life stories I've seen happen around me.

Priyanka Bose and Mohit Agarwal in 'Agra'
Priyanka Bose and Mohit Agarwal in 'Agra'

‘Agra’ is definitely recognisable as a Kanu Behl film, but where ‘Titli’ was a slow burn, this one goes straight to 11.

For me it’s about being able to serve the film you're doing as truthfully as possible. Titli was a coming-of-age story. This is almost the opposite of that. When I was writing Agra, I was wary of doing something that othered the character. I wanted to do this piece about sexual repression but I had not experienced the intensity and chaos of the life of a boy who desperately wants some physical connection. He doesn’t know how to express himself but he’s looking for a moment of truth.

I decided I'd have to create that experience for myself. And that comes with the problem of staying safe, for yourself and the people around you. I went into a lot of sex chat rooms, sometimes posing as women, sometimes as men, to see how people were expressing their secret lives. The more time I spent in these rooms, I noticed that the complete white noise you start to feel if you're desiring that sort of connection and not getting it for a very long time, it’s amped up to 11. The more I started breathing in that noise, the film started emerging from there. So the amping up is my attempt to take you to that place.

You favour a bold, almost overwhelming sound design. There are these factory-like sounds that really make a particular scene with Guru.

Apart from the factory noise in that scene, there's a really high-pitched sound. It’s the little thing that goes in your teeth when you're in the chair at the dentist's.

The idea was just to create a string of really dissonant spaces. With the drones we try and give you a sense of the white noise that he's feeling—especially when Mala [his girlfriend] appears, you hear the noise. Slowly the drones start blending into his internal pain. In a critical scene with Guru and Chhavi [his cousin], the drone you hear is literally like he's not able to take the noise within himself anymore. In the final act of the film, there are a lot of sharp sounds you find in the construction space.

There's very little music. Did you feel a score might intrude?

Absolutely, because there's no music in his life. Very early on when I was writing, I knew this. The montage at the end—that's my Bollywood song. But that little calm or peace is also acerbic. I wanted to use score as a counterpoint to action in the second half.

Did you rehearse a lot?

No, there was little rehearsal, just a lot of character-building work. It's more about taking the character that you're playing from day one in their lives to the point where they start the film, so you know them as intimately as possible, so that when we're shooting the actor is the best person to decide what that person is feeling. That character needs to be lived fully by the actor. Most of the stuff in the workshops is designed towards arriving at the point where you start the film.



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